First a word about pie – although it is still a great favorite dessert in America, and you can watch pie-making competitions on The Food Network—pie may not be quite as outstanding and famous today as it was in decades gone by. And how many people do you know who make a pie from scratch anymore—aside from those ambitious cooks on the Food Network competing for a $10,000 first place check?
We have, admittedly, become a nation of fast food—and frozen pie dough and frozen pies are pretty satisfactory for the busy housewife/mother who has worked all day and rushes home to make dinner. But back in the day pie was perhaps the most famous of all desserts throughout the country—and any young woman worth her salt knew how to make pies and pie crust—from scratch—and do a good job of it.
In William Woys Weaver’s book “America Eats”, he mentions “Since pie is found in every part of the country, it is one consistent source of evidence for regionalization in American folk cookery.” He says that cookbook literature is full of examples of this, from the potato pudding pies of Maryland, the ground cherry pies of Pennsylvania…to the boiled cider pies of New England and the vinegar pies of the Upper Midwest. In each of these examples,” writes Weaver, “the process of creative substitution has resulted in an identifiable local or regional trait.”
He says that the vinegar pie and boiled cider pie offered in his “America Eats” are but two examples of culinary regionalism. Woys explains that vinegar pie is an adaptation, through substitution, of the baked lemon pudding introduced by confectioner Elizabeth Goodfellow (1767-1851) of Philadelphia and much commented on by her protégée Eliza Leslie. Mrs. Goodfellow’s baked lemon pudding, now known as lemon meringue pie, was at one time a mark of great luxury in cookery in Philadelphia and New York, since it required many fresh eggs, sweet-cream butter and fresh lemons. The vinegar pie reduces the lemons to a mere hint of grated zest and replaces them with vinegar. The result is a pie that looks like lemon meringue pie but the taste is not the same.
Vinegar pie became a feature of hotel and boarding houses in the Upper Midwest, undoubtedly because it was far from coastal ports and the cost of lemons would have been prohibitive. Weaver refers to The Browns cookbook “America Eats”* and their recipe for Pioneer Vinegar Pie, in which they place it in North Dakota but Woys felt that the Browns should have put it in Michigan. Both William Woys Weavers and the Browns–Cora, Rose and Bob Brown–, are among my favorite food historians and I have tried to collect all of the books written by them. (If you are just starting out collection Americana cookbooks, I recommend both authors). And, some years ago when I was writing for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, I wrote an extensive article about the history of pie, titled “As Easy as Pie”.
*FYI – I think I have about half a dozen food reference books, not necessarily designed to be a cookbook, with the title of “America Eats”. I have an entire bookcase filled with cookbooks with “America” in the titles. It’s a popular title and if I am not mistaken, a title for a book cannot be copyrighted.
John Mariani, author of “The American Encyclopedia of Food & Drink” offers recipes for both vinegar candy and vinegar pie and refers the reader to Nelson Algren’s book “America Eats” which is a part of the Iowa Szathmary Culinary Arts Series. Algren’s book was written in the 1930s as part of the WPA Illinois Writers Project but was not published until 1992 as part of the Iowa Szathmary Culinary Arts Series. Algren noted that as winter wore on, the Midwestern settlers’ systems craved fruit and tart flavors.
I think, in the final analysis, Weaver comes closest to the actual factual history of Vinegar pie; it is, after all is said and done, a fine example of American ingenuity – make do or do without. If you don’t have any lemons – make a vinegar pie.
Although the Browns provide a recipe for Pioneer Vinegar pie, their recipe makes enough filling for 4 pies (not unusual back in the days of farmers and large families, but perhaps not too economical or sensible for us today). The following recipe is from Weaver’s “America Eats” and is, itself, taken from a popular cookbook first published in Detroit in 1882. This recipe, he notes, might be called “Poor Man’s Lemon Meringue Pie”.
To make Poor Man’s Lemon Meringue Pie, you will need:
1 ½ cups cider vinegar
2 cups water
4 TBSP unsalted butter
1 ½ cups plus 2 tsp sugar
Zest of ½ lemon
5 eggs, separated
3 TBSP all purpose flour
2 9” pie shells
Preheat oven 325 degrees.
Heat the vinegar, 1 cup of the water, butter, the 1 ½ cups of sugar and lemon zest in a saucepan. Beat the egg yolks with the remaining cup of water and flour until smooth. As the vinegar boils, whisk in the egg-and-flour mixture and continue whisking until it thickens. Pour the filling into the unbaked pie shells and bake in the preheated oven 35-40 minutes or until the filling sets. When done, remove the pies from the oven and beat the egg whites until stiff. Sweeten with the remaining 2 tsp sugar and spread over the pies. Return to the oven and brown the meringue 10 minutes. Then remove the pies from the oven and set aside to cool. Serve cold.
And if you are still feeling ambitious after baking vinegar pies, here is a recipe for making vinegar candy. The recipe is from a book titled “Good Old Days In The Kitchen” and the recipe is titled
Great-Great-Grandma’s Vinegar Taffy
For each one pulling you will need:
1 cup cane sugar
1-2 TBSP vinegar
enough water to moisten
¼ tsp cream of tartar
Combine all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Do not stir after it starts to boil and if crystals form on side of pan, wipe them off with a damp cloth wrapped around a fork. Let mixture boil to the brittle ball stage or until it spins a 12” thread. Do not stir. Pour into greased pan to cool until you can start pulling it.
And here is one more recipe for vinegar taffy from a 1932 recipe in the cookbook “FORGOTTEN RECIPES” compiled by Jaine Rodack. This is a candy recipe which is brittle and has a faint lemon taste although there is no lemon in it:
To make 1932 Vinegar Taffy you will need:
2 cups sugar
½ cup vinegar
pinch of salt
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
2 TBSP butter
Combine all ingredients and boil to the hard ball stage (265 to 270 degrees). Pour into a well buttered pan and cool. Now comes the fun! Pull your taffy until it becomes white and porous. Then cut into 1” pieces.
And, although pie is still a popular dessert- apple, cherry, peach, pumpkin, pecan, whether you pick it up at Baker’s Square or from the freezer case at your favorite supermarket – it crossed my mind, as I was searching for vinegar pie recipes – that a lot of desserts have virtually disappeared from our culinary landscape…fools, slumps, grunts, syllabubs, and roly polies are just a few desserts no one hears or reads about any more. So, you ask, what ARE fools, slumps, grunts, syllabubs and roly polies? And is it roly-polys or roly-polies?)
Jean Anderson, in her “American Century Cookbook” mentions that “fools, slumps, grunts, dowdies and roly polies virtually disappeared from twentieth-century cookbooks, certainly those published after World War II” – but doesn’t offer any explanation for the origin of those dessert names. Sidney Dean, author of “Cooking American” offers recipes for apple slump, apple pandowdy and apple roly-poly but doesn’t offer any explanation for the origin of the recipes either. Elsewhere, Dean provides recipes for Longshore Berry Grunt and one most unusually named recipe, “Weary Willie Berry or Cherry Mush”. What most of these recipes do have in common is a fruit of some kind, of a combination of fruits and a crust or topping made of flour, sugar, baking powder, butter and seasonings, but whereas pies have a bottom crust, most of these desserts are crustless on the bottom, but have a top crust of some kind. Sort of like Apple Betty or Apple Crisps, which you may be more familiar with. Jean Anderson surmised that many of these old fashioned desserts disappeared from our culinary landscape after World War II with the advent of Jello gelatin and different kinds of puddings, instant and otherwise, that come in a box and only require water or milk to make an instant dessert.
A fool is a dessert made of cooked fruit and cream. A clue to its origin may be found in “The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking through the Ages” by William Harlan Hale, noting under a recipe for Raspberry Fool that “it was easy enough for a fool to make”… but I have to confess, despite having somewhere between five and ten thousand cookbooks – and three bookcases just devoted to food history – I was unable to find actual definitions for slumps, grunts, syllabubs and roly polies—that is, until I began Googling these words and happened to find a website called Vitaille. I am so excited – I found reasonable explanations for all of these words (if not the original origins, which may be lost to history). I suspect that all of these words have British origins.
Syllabub, according to Vitaille, is a British old fashioned drink made with rich cream, sugar, spices and some kind of alcohol—wine, beer, or cider.
A FOOL, however, is a puree of fruit such as rhubarb or gooseberries, mixed with cream. Apparently it is not from the French “foule” meaning crushed, but is akin to the English word folly, or trifle.
A GRUNT is stewed fruit topped with a dumpling, an early American dessert similar to a SLUMP. (And do we really want to go there?) While the elusive…
ROLY POLY was a nursery pudding made with suet or biscuit dough crust spread with jam and – logically – rolled up and then baked or steamed.
And now you (sort of) know the rest of the story.
America Cooks – The Browns, 1940
COOKING AMERICAN, Sydney Dean, 1957
The Horizon Cookbook, William Harlan Hale, 1968
“FORGOTTEN RECIPES”, Jaine Rodack, 1981
America Eats – William Woys Weaver, 1989
America EATS-Nelson Algren/The Iowa Szathmary Culinary Arts Series, 1992
The American Century Cookbook, Jean Anderson, 1997
The American Encyclopedia of Food & Drink, John Mariani, 1999